“Ciao!” Pronounce it “chow,” or something close to that, which makes it an ironically cheeky name for a friendly eatery. There’s ambiguity in this Italian greeting, though: Much like “Aloha” or “Shalom” or maybe even “Good Day,” you can use it to say hello, and you can also use it to say goodbye.
So let’s say “Ciao,” meaning “howdy,” to Ciao Ristorante, the warm and inviting establishment that has finally filled the long-vacant space where the beloved Baxter Station sadly said its “Ciao” as farewell in the summer of 2013. It has taken a while, but now Luigi Gelsomini, owner of Luigi’s Pizzeria downtown, has launched Ciao with a grand opening last November 10.
It’s worth the wait. We came the other night and found a virtually complete makeover of the familiar old property. Up front, a long and glitzy bar may now offer the city’s most faithful replica of a modern Italian watering hole.
The offbeat decor makes use of old wooden doors and repurposed furniture painted in distressed pastels, yielding a result that melds the feeling of a dusty, sun-washed Italian village with more than a hint of “steampunk,” tongue-in-cheek hip Victorian. Heavy, undraped, shiny dark wood tables are served by black metal ice-cream-parlor chairs with orange leather-look seats; a row of heavy booths lines one side. Table settings are simple and functional, white-paper napkins rolled around basic, lightweight flatware.
Ciao’s menu offers a blend of Italian-American family cuisine and some of the pan-Italian culinary spectrum that we used to call “Northern Italian” because it didn’t have red sauce. A few dishes appear to be creative takes on Italian regional tradition; and yes, there is pizza. The restaurant website calls it “one-of-a-kind locally developed recipes influenced by many years of Italian tradition.”
Menu pricing is fair, with starters and salads ranging from $6 (for a half-dozen toasted ravioli) to $12 (for fritto misto, fried calamari and shrimp). More than a dozen main courses range from $12 (for the Ciao burger) to $29 (for a 12-ounce strip steak with Calabrian chile sauce). Ten pizzas in two sizes run from $14 to $28.
The bar program is well-chosen and thoroughly appealing to anyone who loves Italy and all things Italian. I was particularly intrigued by its surprisingly broad list of more than two dozen aperitifs – bitter amari and vermouths ($4 to $8), with artisanal mixers for a $2 upcharge; similarly priced digestifs, sweet Italian liqueurs and strette. Creative cocktails are all $10, and, of course, there are good lists of spirits and beers. Let’s put it this way: where else in town can you start your repast with Cynar artichoke liqueur mixed with Fever Tree artisanal bitter-lemon soda ($9) and finish with a tiny goblet of take-your-breath-away bitter Fernet Branca ($7)? Yes, I could definitely hang out at this bar.
Ciao’s signature appetizer is not-so-Italian monkey bread ($6),, a thoroughly American recipe that most scholarly culinary sources trace to California home kitchens in the 1940s and some link to the silent-film starlet Zasu Pitts. So, not Italian, but fun, these warm yeast rolls are baked in a pull-apart circle and stuffed with Ciao’s filling of the day … this night, spinach, roasted red peppers, mushrooms and mozzarella.
Salads were very good, setting the tone for more excellence to follow.
Fennel and celery salad ($6) was clean and fresh, mixed greens tossed in a light Honeycrisp apple vinaigrette with thin-sliced Granny Smith apple, fennel bulb, celery, a bit of earthy Pecorino cheese, and tiny, crisp roasted soy nuts.
Winter caprese ($6) was good, too. Intensely sweet slow-roasted tomato rounds were mixed with chopped lettuces, a generous slab of fresh mozzarella and a stripe of basil pesto, mirroring if not quite reaching the fresh flavors of its summer cousin.
Six O’Clock roast chicken ($17) was excellent. A thigh, breast-and-wing and leg were all melting tender within an appetizing crisp skin, plated on a well-made, slightly al dente smoked-mushroom risotto. A swish of parsley-lemon-olive-oil on the plate made a good dip for the tender but rather mild chicken. Rapini on the menu had been replaced with more pedestrian broccoli, but it was well done.
Hearty baked manicotti ($13) was a treat with an asterisk: Three or four tender pasta squares rolled into cylinders filled with ricotta and chopped spinach were a delight that transported my palate to Bologna. A leaden blanket of marinara, mozzarella and chopped herbs sucked the air out of the lighter pasta, though; I pushed most of it aside.
Cannoli ($3.50) had potential, but this classic Italian dessert is best served promptly, after the shell is fried and formed into a tube for delicious sweet ricotta and chocolate. These had apparently been kept in the fridge until the shells turned soft and chewy, a disappointment.
Overall, though, our experience was excellent. Highly recommended, and we’ll be back. Dinner for two, with a stack of take-out boxes sufficient for a tasty next-day lunch, was $70.59, plus a $15 tip.